Chronicle comment of the month

Councilmember McCracken wrote back to my email referenced in the last post and said some things which made me more optimistic again, help more about which I will cover in my next crackplog, overweight but probably not until Monday. In the meantime, read here’s something I wrote up today on the #27 bus (transit field trip time!)
Short one today – my company was having a rare physical meeting at Ventana del Soul, a non-profit with some meeting rooms. (Well, actually, only three of the five locals, and one non-local; most of the company is still in Virginia). Took the #7 down in order to leave the car with my wife. Google Transit trip indicates 35 minutes by bus; 20 minutes by car in traffic (highly optimistic; more like 30).
I waited about ten minutes for the #7 at or about 8:30 AM; just missed one apparently. When my bus arrived, every seat was full, and there were 10-15 people standing. We picked up one more person before entering the UT area, in which the bus rapidly disgorged – I was able to get a seat when we crossed Dean Keaton, and by the time we hit MLK, nobody was standing and about half the seats were full. Continued on through downtown, people getting on and off (more on than off), and then as the #27 down Riverside through near-in southeast Austin. A few more people got on, but the bus was never completely full; when I disembarked at my stop, there were about 15-20 riders remaining.
So, summary, from 37th to UT, every seat full; 10-15 straphangers. Dropped off about 2/3 of those people at UT, but more got on downtown, and through Riverside about 3/4 of seats were full.
On the way home, I waited about three minutes for the #27 at Burton and Riverside while I was talking with a billing rep at a medical office. The bus actually came while I was still on the phone – and I accidentally tried to board with a soda (oops). Almost every seat was full – I estimate 20 to 25 passengers; but several got off at the next stop and I was able to move to the back next to the window. Picked up a lot more people along East Riverside. Summary: From my stop on Oltorf to downtown, average 3/4 to all seats full; dropped off about half downtown; then about half full to my stop at 33rd.
Hard to believe, but this bus was actually more full than most of my rides on the #3 back when I reverse-commuted in the mornings once or twice a week to Netbotz.

Not sure if it’s a typo, epidemic but Robin Cravey, help who I could support with reservations (given Zilker activities), misbirth and Laura Morrison, who I absolutely could not, given her destruction of the political capital of OWANA that the previous leadership worked so hard to build, and of course, years of ANC shenanigans culminating in the McMansion and VMU opt-out spasm, have apparently both just announced for Place 4, and are both using Threadgills for their petition kickoffs, albeit on adjoining days.
Please, every reader of this blog, if it turns out they’re running against each other, remember: we can’t afford to have a neighborhood-pandering obstructionist sitting at the Council.
I don’t have a site for Morrison’s campaign (email didn’t have a link), but oddly enough, the current ANC president (Danette Chimenti, who like Morrison is a McMansion activist with a big honkin’ expensive house) used these words to endorse her:

Laura did so much for ANC in her two years as President; by reaching out to neighborhoods and leaders all over Austin, and providing unifying, informed leadership she is responsible for ANC achieving the high level of respectability and credibility it has today.

which is amazing, given the ANC’s recent record of striking out on essentially everything except McMansion and CWS. The current city council, at least, clearly has far less respect for the ANC than they did even a couple of years ago. I don’t know if Chimenti actually expects us to believe this, but it’s laughable.

I’m now upgrading my position to cautious pessimism (from complete horror) after a nice exchange of email with Councilmember McCracken. As I said in my initial post a week or two ago, what is ed the early media coverage made it sound like the project would just be an extension of Capital Metro’s awful circulator route (which avoids most places people want to go, information pills and services, urticaria albeit poorly, commuter rail passengers to the exclusion of the central Austinites for whom it was originally promised).
McCracken wrote back late last week, saying he had missed the email originally. Since my email only talked about reserved guideway, that’s all he addressed at first – and he indicated he’d be pushing strongly for reserved guideway whereever possible, agreeing with my opinion that Capital Metro is underplaying the liabilities of running in shared lanes. So far so good. I wrote him back asking about my route questions raised by my second run through the media coverage, and he also indicated he favors a Guadalupe route up to the Triangle, pointing out that the #1/#101 are the most ridden buses we’ve got, proving a strong demand for transit in the corridor even today, even with bad bus service as the only option.
Sounds good, right? Well, to be realistic, it was going to be hard to get reserved guideway on Guadalupe past UT even with true light rail and with the Feds paying half to 80% of the bill. If we’re funding most to all of this system ourselves, as I suspect we are, I think it will be difficult to get an exclusive lane near UT, which, unfortunately, is the place where it would be most needed. Also, the talk about running in reserved guideway alongside Riverside seems unworkable – I paid close attention during Friday’s transit field trip, and didn’t see enough space to get this done, unless there’s something else I’m missing, like narrowing existing lanes.
So, mark me as guardedly pessimistic. I’ll be rooting that McCracken can pull this off – I have not heard similarly educated stuff from any other council member, so he’s the only hope here. I think Wynn believes in the streetcar fairy dust (the idea that streetcar running in shared lane will attract a lot more daily commuters than bus). Keep your eye on the ball.

As reported at the Chronicle’s blog:

The argument made by Responsible Growth For Northcross (RG4N) this morning is that the city’s approval of Lincoln Property’s site plan violated the note, generic which mandates that “Rainfall runoff shall be held to the amount existing at undeveloped status by use of ponding or other approved methods.” The city – with testimony from city engineers Benny Ho and Jose Guerrero – countered that “undeveloped status” means status at the time the application is filed, not a reversion to the status of when the property was a green pasture. Attorney Casey Dobson, representing the city, said “To use a legal term, that [would be] silly.” Guerrero further testified that the law only requires that a project not make flooding worse, and that Lincoln’s site plan will actually reduce impervious cover and presumable send less floodwater off-site.

In other words, the Wal-Mart plan is demonstrably better for drainage than current conditions but RG4N claims code should be interpreted as if a project must (not just can, but MUST) be rejected by city staff if it adds more runoff than the completely undeveloped state would have. Also keep in mind that the RG4N ‘vision’ would also be an improvement over current conditions, but most definitely not over the undeveloped prairie that was there seventy years ago.
If you ever needed proof that RG4N’s legal strategy was the old “throw excrement on the wall and see what sticks” method, here it is. And if there were any justice in the world, the judge would call RG4N forward and issue this speech.
As my cow orker DSK pointed out a moment ago, though, it would almost be worth yielding on this point if the judge put similar conditions on the homeowners of Allandale and Crestview.

Michael King writes that we should support RG4N even though their case is utterly without merit as even their news staff is beginning to discover, ampoule months too late. Here’s a comment I just placed there:

Michael, this is ridiculous. Zoning means something – in this case, it means that Lincoln bought the property knowing what they should be allowed to develop (and what they should not be allowed to develop). If they were up there asking for variances or even a change in zoning, RG4N and the rest of you guys would have a point, but they’re not, and you don’t.
When it comes to cases where developers seek upzoning, many of these same people are very quick to tell you that the prospective developer should have known what they were getting when they bought the tract. Interesting how this doesn’t apply here. Also interesting how none of the RG4N homeowners are volunteering to let Lincoln have veto power over their own development projects within current zoning. Democracy for me, not thee.
As for the comparison to the Triangle – the bulk of RG4N’s supporters are using the group as ‘useful idiots’ here – they have shown through their actions on other projects (including very recently) that they have no interest at all in dense urban development – they want to preserve low-density stuff they already have.
A critical eye once in a while, even at your fellow travellers, would seem to me to be a basic responsibility for a journalist.

One point I should have added but forgot: this lawsuit, in which the city has to defend its legal responsibility to approve site plans that comply with city code, is costing Austin taxpayers a half-million or so at last count. Still think RG4N is so noble?
A second point I just remembered: the Triangle development was such a big fight because the state (leasing the land to the developer) is exempt from Austin zoning codes.

As DSK notes, implant this isn’t incredibly clear on first reading, so here’s a new lead-in:
I forgot to crackplog about this when it happened: a “remodel” of a property with a duplex on it on 34th was the subject of a lawsuit filed by some of the leadership of my neighborhood association which went down in flames, since the property owner clearly satisfied the legal requirements in the zoning code (although those requirements were indeed very vague and very generous). News 8 has given the complaining neighbor some pity press (was in first link but not obvious), and I was reminded to talk about it. Here we go!
This new kind of awful seems to be cropping up a lot lately – the tendency for people who ought to know better to insist that the legal system is broken if it doesn’t give them outcomes they like – in other words, since we care enough to shine our rainbows on the problem (Julian Sanchez), that ought to be enough to solve it. But the legal system doesn’t operate in the world of democracy; it operates in the world where the law means something, and in this case, my idiot neighbors wasted a bunch of money on a lawsuit that was clearly doomed to failure.

In other words, even though I, personally, think that these new duplexes are actually a lot nicer for the neighborhood than the old ones (described by a more moderate person than I as “red shacks from Somalia”), and that my neighbors are just plain bad people for wanting to keep out slightly-more-affordable housing than the single-family-classic-mansions that infest that side of Speedway (34th being the dividing line on that side between historically rich mansion stuff and more modest development), it’s irrelevant: in this case, the law is clear, and what’s more, was clear before they bothered to file the suit. If some neighbor was building a garage apartment on a 6000 square foot lot, an action which is consistent with my preferences but against the city code since our neighborhood plan prohibits it, I’d likewise think anybody who filed a suit to do it was stupid. Still left undetermined is how much of this frivolous lawsuit’s cost my neighborhood association will ultimately bear – since the leadership is overwhelmingly from that side of Speedway and on the wrong side of so many other development issues, I expect them to eventually donate some funds. Ha ha, DSK, I never joined, so it won’t be my money, at least!
Are you listening, Chronicle?

“CAMPO wresting rail planning from Capital Metro” is the headline. Sounds good to me – Wynn and Watson in charge means smarter rail than Capital Metro’s stupid useless stuck-in-traffic streetcar plan. Right?
But who else is going to be in charge here? Let’s see:

The 14-member group will be led by Austin Mayor Will Wynn and will include among others McCracken, more about Austin state Sen. Kirk Watson (who had a whole lot to do with creating the group after Wynn called for something similar last month), global burden of disease Williamson County state Rep. Mike Krusee, Travis County Commissioner and Capital Metro critic emeritus Gerald Daugherty, and representatives of the University of Texas and road and rail advocacy groups.

Yes, that’s the same Mike Krusee that got us into this mess in the first place – the asshat who screwed Austin out of a good starter rail line like Houston and Dallas and everybody else built. That Mike Krusee. The guy who derailed efforts to build good rail for Austin so his constituents (most of whom don’t even pay Capital Metro taxes) could get more transit investments than the residents of central Austin who pay most of the bills.
Shit. We’re screwed.
Note that even if Krusee wasn’t involved, the implementation of commuter rail has now precluded anything like 2000’s light rail line from being built and that’s about the only light rail line worth trying around here. In other words, the damage has already been done – we can’t recover the 2000 route now. But still – having him (and even Daugherty) involved is the death knell for even a mediocre effort at urban transit – as neither one is likely to support investing enough money in reserved guideway transit in the city core. To them, every dollar spent on the dirty hippies in Central Austin is a wasted dollar that should instead be spent ferrying some SUV-driving soccer mom from one strip mall to another.
If Krusee had just kept his mouth shut in 2000, we’d have had a light rail election in May of 2001, and it likely would have passed. By now, you’d be seeing trains running in their own lane down Guadalupe right in front of UT, and down Congress Avenue right in front of all those big office buildings. Instead, we’re seeing test runs of a useless commuter line running out by Airport Boulevard that nobody will actually ride. That’s what he got us last time. Imagine what he can do for an encore!

This story is kind of sad, this site but also a bit of an I-told-you-so moment. I’ve expressed in other forums (comments, mostly) that local businesses around here have sadly not been prepared to adapt to a more urban environment – ref among others the locally-owned businesses around Northcross in pedestrian-hostile parking-loving strip centers protesting against a slightly-more-urban and slightly-less-hostile-to-pedestrians Northcross redesign, and don’t forget Karen McGraw’s shenanigans in Hyde Park. And now, from 2nd street:

Speaking confidentially, other tenants are concerned that there’s no interest in keeping them in business and that the lack of parking in the area makes life as a retailer virtually impossible.

(Of course, an anonymous commenter has already said that they think shopowners/employees were hogging the few curbside spaces that existed – hard to verify, but wouldn’t surprise me). The idea that you can’t have retail without free nearby parking is a suburban mindset – which is the most clear indication that these people weren’t prepared for urban retail.

Here’s a clue: Don’t move downtown if you can’t figure out a way to attract customers who arrive by any means other than the private automobile parked right in front of your store. Sadly, there are a lot of national retailers who DO know how to do this – and we’re probably better off with a pedestrian-oriented national business than a local business that doesn’t know how to play in an urban center. That’s going to result in a lot of backlash from the paleoliberals, and I won’t be thrilled either, but I don’t see any other way forward.

This might get worse before it gets better – transit ACCESS downtown is good, but competitiveness is poor, unless you have to pay to park. People who have free parking at their offices in the suburbs aren’t going to enjoy paying to park to shop – so again, these businesses need to not rely on that type of customer to survive, but the other type of customer – the local (urban) resident – may not exist in large enough numbers (yet) to make up for a retailer that doesn’t have a lot of experience marketing to those urbanites.

A fairly good article this time about Krusee seeing the light on new urbanism and stepping down. I’m honestly not sure how much I believe, viagra 100mg which is a huge step up for me on this guy, cheap actually. Here’s some interesting quotes:

“It’s an article of faith for Democrats that the sales tax is regressive. The gas tax is much, food much more regressive. The gas tax is, literally, a transfer of wealth from the poor to the middle class – to the upper-middle class.”
That’s not some blogging transit activist or Green Partier speaking on the inequitable burdens of highway costs. It’s District 52 state Rep. Mike Krusee, who’s currently best known – for better and worse – as the legislative face of Texas toll roads.

Gosh, I wonder if anybody else has been talking about that for years now. Couldn’t be, huh? I presume the “transit blogger” might be me, given that every other blogger in the universe has swallowed Costello’s tripe “TOLLS BAD. HURRRR.”
As for the rail issue:

There are those who say his successful advocacy of suburban commuter rail instead of the light-rail lines initially proposed clumsily destroyed the possibility of effective Downtown mass transit for another decade – and that instead, we’ll be trying to retrofit a system conceived for the very suburban sprawl it’s supposed to replace. But as Mike Clark-Madison wrote here, about a year after Krusee was having his New Urbanism epiphany, “It’s also pretty obvious that the only way Austin will ever have rail transit is if we start with a commuter system serving western suburbanites” (“Austin @ Large,” April 9, 2004).

It’s too late, Mike. The first quote is right – we’re screwed; but Michael King is as wrong now as Mike Clark-Madison was then; there is literally no way to start with this commuter rail line and end up with a system which both suburbanites and urbanites can ride and get some benefit from. Even a transfer from “good rail” to “good rail” (both running in their own right-of-way) is enough to turn off essentially all suburban commuters not currently taking the bus, unless we reach Manhattan levels of density and parking costs (which we never will). And that presumes that we’re somehow able to surpass tremendous obstacles and get a light rail stub built down Lamar and Guadalupe, which I doubt very much that we can (now that we wasted all our money on “urban” commuter rail that serves the suburbs poorly and the urban area not at all).
My comments posted there (some repetition of the above):

I can’t believe Krusee gets it about inner-city drivers. That makes precisely ONE politician that does.
Of course, that doesn’t make the gas tax regressive by itself – it’s the fact that we pay for so many of our roads (even parts of our state highways) with even more regressive taxes (property and sales) which do the trick.
As for the rail thing – Krusee has destroyed it here, forever. You can’t start with commuter rail and end up with something good – suburban passengers won’t transfer from one train to another train (even if by some miracle we GOT a second train running down Guadalupe in its own lane) to get to work until we’re reaching Manhattan levels of density. He doomed us to the point where we have to abandon transit to the suburbs, even though we spent all of our money building it. Good show.

One of the many pieces of excrement flung against the wall by RG4N in the desperate hope something would stick was an ITE Journal article in which the author asserted a disproportionate (to square footage) traffic impact for “free-standing discount superstores” over 200, look 000 square feet. The conclusion, dentist in other words, seek was that 199,999 square feet stores should have a trip generation figure of X per square foot; while 200,000 square foot stores should have a trip generation figure of Y, where Y is much larger than X.
This is counter-intuitive to say the least. One could argue that the increased size results in more trips overall – which would be the result of continuing to apply X trips per square feet (X times 200,000 is obviously more than X times 100,000). One could even argue that the increased size results in fewer trips than the same number of square feet in _two_ stores (“one-stop shopping”). But the theory that a bigger store results in, and I emphasize units here, more trips per square foot has always seemed ludicrous to me.
Anyways, as it turns out, Wal-Mart went with a slightly smaller store – which the army of anonymous RG4N trolls have used for quite a while as conspiracy fodder – claiming that they snuck it in under the threshold to avoid these supposedly more valid rules (which, again, as far as I can tell, the ITE still hasn’t seriously considered adopting).
As it turns out, I wasn’t alone in my skepticism. In addition to several disagreements about methodology, the respondent (another traffic engineer) points out that the study was too small to be statistically rigorous; the stores were too different to draw any firm conclusions; and that the author’s supposed intuitive conclusion isn’t. Some excerpts follow, since I’m not sure how long this article stays up for free. I’ll leave out the most esoteric stuff.

DEAR EDITOR:
As a transportation consultant who is involved in both the performance and the review of traffic studies, my colleagues and I at McMahon Associates, Inc. are extremely concerned that the August 2006ITE Journal article entitled “Trip Generation Characteristics of FreeStanding Discount Superstores” lacks the rigorous scientific analysis and thoroughness that we have come to expect in ITE Journal articles.
As such, although ITE Journal states: “Opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not reflect official ITE or magazine policy unless so stated,” the article may be utilized by transportation professionals and others as “gospel” even though its analysis is flawed, in our opinion, in many respects.

2. Additionally, the square footage of a gas station is not a good choice for independent variable, as compared to the number of fueling positions, when determining its estimated trip generation; i.e., a 225-square-foot building could serve four fueling positions or 14 fueling positions.

5. We also question whether the author confirmed, in her comparison to the ITE Land Use Code 813 rates, that the latter (ITE) square footage baselines are the same as she assumed, especially with regard to the garden center, which typically has significant (15,000 to 20,000 square feet) square footage. While we agree that the rates should be applied to “total” square footage, inclusive of a garden center, it is our understanding that the ITE samples were largely (or totally) based on building foundation square footage, not inclusive of outside garden centers. Our observations about baselines and “with and without gas pumps” are intended to reinforce our opinion that the author’s analysis appears to be an “apples to oranges” comparison rather than “apples to apples.”

7. There is also a fairly large discrepancy between the number of vehicle trips collected between different days at some of the supercenter locations. Site 3 shows an increase of almost 17 percent in site traffic between the day 1 and day 2 counts. The increases in site traffic between the day 1 and day 2 counts at site 1 and site 5 are both about 10 percent. The fluctuation in these counts suggests that there could be flaws in the data or that other factors may have been involved in the traffic generation of the site on one or both days of the counts. These discrepancies may reflect seasonal variations, as the article indicates that the first weekday count was taken in July while the second count was taken in October.


and here’s the one that I think is the most important to laypeople:

9. We also take issue with the author’s statement that “free-standing discount superstores intuitively should have a higher trip generation rate than free-standing discount stores, which by definition do not contain a full-service grocery store but have most of the other amenities of the superstore.” Are not shopping centers evidence that larger stores, with presumably more services or products in one location, result in documented lower trip rates, because customers shop longer and their shopping needs can be accommodated in fewer trips due to greater availability of goods and services? In fact, the author’s argument is shown not to be the case in Table 1 of the article, where the author’s own comparisons show that, as retail store sizes become larger and more services/products are offered, trip generation rates decrease. We also note that the number of samples for ITE free-standing discount store (47) and ITE shopping center (407) is large enough so as to make these land uses’ rates statistically more reliable than ITE’s rates for free-standing discount superstore (10 samples) or the author’s study (five samples).

In conclusion, while the author’s study and article adds to the body of knowledge on trip generation characteristics of superstores in excess of 200,000 square feet, its data and analysis of that data, we submit, are not rigorous or conclusive enough to support the article’s recommendation that the rates derived from the author’s analysis should be used as the future norm for 200,000 square-feet-plus superstores. Until such time that more samples are collected (we would recommend at least 20); preferably from various locations in the country, as she also recommends, to test geographic differences, if any; and are computed on common baselines first (separately, without, or with gas pumps) before combined (i.e., if not statistically different), we suggest that the jury is still out on the validity of this article’s rates, conclusions and future use.

Macy’s in Manhattan

Macy’s also has flagship (very large) stores in San Francisco and Chicago – and their Chicago store is pursuing adding a grocery store in the basement.
Harrod’s in London

Wal-Mart doesn’t have their cachet, hospital it’s true, for sale but Allandale also doesn’t have the cachet of central Austin. Nevertheless, diagnosis the contention that big boxes belong out on the highway (which, in Texas, inevitably means on the frontage road where pedestrians, cyclists, and transit users mostly can’t get to them), is absolutely false – the normal pattern, before suburban sprawl took over, was that the biggest stores were downtown, not out in the boonies.
As for the inevitable claims of “bbbbbut if it was in YOUR neighborhood, you’d feel differently”, there was an Urban Target slated for 6th and Lamar (much closer to true central Austin – not just center of population) when I lived in Clarksville and I was thrilled to death at the prospect. Don’t remember square footage, but it was supposed to be 2 floors with some kind of neat cart escalator and whatnot.

Now that RG4N has struck out, pulmonologist it’s time to assess the damage. RG4N is interpreting the judge’s decision not to comment on three of their four complaints as evidence that they were valid which is spectacularly delusional. Good show, visit folks. Thanks to the Chronicle for, even now, supporting RG4N’s desperate attempt to spin this as something other than a complete truth-slap. Hint: it’s not “curious” she didn’t address the “other claims”; it was predicted by a real lawyer quite some time ago.
I’m going to cover this in two or more parts; today’s is just a conservative estimate of the direct and immediate costs and what we might have otherwise done with that time and money.
The city’s legal costs are oft-quoted at $424,000. This is at least the contract with Casey Dobson. I’m going to be extremely conservative and round up the city’s direct costs to $600,000, including other legal costs, the time and money spent responding repeatedly to RG4N’s complaints (and to city council members who were desperately trying to find an angle to work).
Other direct and short-term costs I could have considered, but didn’t:
Lost sales taxes: I’ll be completely conservative and assume that every single dollar of sales tax we don’t get from six months or so of delayed opening would have just been shifted from other Wal-Marts or other stores in the city. I don’t believe this to be the case; if it were that simple, Wal-Mart wouldn’t be so eager to build the store. More likely would be a shifting of the natural coverage area of each store – with stores on the edge of Austin becoming less crowded and hence more attractive to shoppers further out, but this is hypothetical and impossible to measure. Easier to believe but still harder to measure would be the lost tax revenue from other businesses in the center which don’t have easily subsitutable competition – for instance, a delay in the move of the ice rink.
Lost property taxes – despite what you hear from RG4N trolls on the Chronicle’s blog, there is a property tax impact to this development – the land value may increase, or it may not, but I guarantee the structure value will increase dramatically – and the city gets to tax that building value (as does the school district, county, etc.). Impossible to estimate now precisely what that will be, but common sense would tell you that it will be substantial enough to consider as a major benefit of the redevelopment given that the structure value of the existing ghost-mall is measured at just south of 16 million.
Lost bus fares: I’m 1000% positive that the opening of this store will result in a major bump in ridership to and through the Northcross transfer center, which gives Capital Metro more fare revenue with zero extra cost (since they probably wouldn’t increase service until the buses were overflowing, given their past history). But again, hypothetical and impossible to estimate.
So let’s leave the direct and short-term cost at a mere $600,000 (the cost to the taxpayers; RG4N and the careening-towards-bankruptcy Allandale Neighborhood Association have their own set of costs, of course).
What could we have done with that money? Well, me, I’m a transportation guy. So I’ll give you two simple transportation options, and another one dear to my heart. Y’all are welcome to chime in as well.
12,000 linear feet of sidewalk at $50/linear foot. (Estimate obtained from a wide range of sources on the web; corrections welcome). That’s two and a quarter miles of sidewalk, folks, enough to cover a big chunk of the sidewalk gap in the densest parts of Central Austin (where the pedestrians actually are).
Restriping Shoal Creek Boulevard into the safe, sane design that every other city would have done – and in fact, recommended to us. Just read those archives. And the same people who cost us the $600K this time are the ones who cost us the million on SCB in the first place, don’t forget. Parking on both sides instead of just one was just that much more important than cyclist safety.
Operate a branch library for a year. Every time we go through a hiccup in the budget, we have to close libraries or delay their opening. I can’t get a breakdown precisely from the city budget after ten minutes of scrutiny, but I’m betting one of the branches could run for a year on that much money (operating expenses).
So there’s three. Anybody else have any suggestions? Of course, none of these were as important as catering to the tantrum of a bunch of people who just really really really REALLY don’t like Wal-Mart, and want us to engage the Care Bear Stare against the legal system.
Next up: the indirect and long-term costs (such as foregone opportunities to improve the site plan with the supercenter intact).

Another casualty of Responsible Growth For Northcross’ year-long tantrum has been the truth. Yes, erectile you heard me. People all over the city now believe varying combinations of the following absolutely incorrect, but truthy, narratives.

  1. “Anderson Lane is some kind of pedestrian utopia which Wal-Mart will make worse”. This just came up yesterday, which is why it’s at the top of my list. BAD FORM, TERRA TOYS. You know damn well that your location on South Congress was ped-friendly, but your strip mall on Anderson Lane? Even a standard-model suburban Wal-Mart would be no worse for pedestrians, cyclists, and transit users than the awful strip malls lining both sides of Burnet Road and Anderson Lane.
  2. “Northcross Mall is in the middle of a neighborhood!” – talk about defining down to irrelevance. Notice from the map at the link that neighborhoods are actually buffered from Northcross by those aforementioned awful strip malls in most directions. The Wal-Mart in my hometown (Boca Raton, FL) directly abuts single-family homes, for comparison’s sake. Which leads us into:
  3. “Big boxes belong on frontage roads!” This one had some legs – even our city council fell for it. Sadly, xenophobia in Texas prevents people from seeing how ridiculous this is – in other states, frontage roads don’t exist, but it’s also not true to then fall back to “well, they must be right next to the highway exits, then”. I spent an hour of my life I’ll never get back proving otherwise to some willfully deluded souls in Allandale, but again, refer to the two Wal-Marts closest to Boca Raton – neither one of which is remotely near a highway off-ramp (Delray Beach example); and the one in State College, PA; on a road very very similar to Burnet Road (four lane with center-turn lane; quite far from off-ramp of the real highway). And they SHOULDN’T be on frontage roads, either – you’re dooming their workers and customers to perpetual car-dependence if you put them out there where they don’t belong.
  4. “All we were doing was trying to get a public process, man!” (read with Tommy Chong voice for extra effect). The whole point of the zoning code is to establish a set of permissible actions which don’t have to go through the public process – and don’t forget the cry of this same bunch whenever a developer requests upzoning or a variance: “you knew what the zoning was when you bought the property”. Well, Lincoln knew what the zoning was when they bought the property, and it unquestionably allowed for exactly this kind of development. Nobody in these neighborhoods cared to do anything about it for years and years when Wal-Mart wasn’t the prospective tenant, of course. Which leads us to:
  5. “We just wanted urban VMU development!” – if you bought this, you’re dumber than a bag full of hammers. The motivating force behind RG4N was primarily the anti-density brigade – the people who opposed VMU everywhere else in Allandale when asked nicely; the people who fought apartments for years and years and years; the people who pushed McMansion so hard. So now we’re to believe that, just coincidentally, they changed their stripes and are now urbanists precisely at the time Wal-Mart came knocking? If so, they’d know that new urbanists would welcome big boxes – as long as they’re built pedestrian-friendly – no matter HOW big. Like Harrod’s in London or Macy’s in New York, Chicago, or San Francisco. Granted, Wal-Mart doesn’t have their cachet, but neither does Allandale.
  6. The city council wanted Wal-Mart all along. Uh, NO. City council members were trying desperately to find an angle to give you (RG4N) what you wanted – and ran straight into the brick wall of fact: the development had to be allowed, period.

That’s an incomplete list. Suggestions welcome, and I’ll update in later postings.
Your pal,
M1EK

Whenever I hear this guy talk about how bad the Domain is, patient I wonder which ones of the strip centers filled with locally-owned businesses he owns. Because I haven’t seen one strip mall with local businesses in it that isn’t a pedestrian-hostile disaster.
Sign me up for MORE DOMAIN SUBSIDIES if it means that we encourage pedestrian use, disease even if it’s only inside the project. Too many of these awful strip malls inhabited by the local businesses who are fighting this fight are like the ones on Anderson Lane where even a confirmed car-hater like me is tempted to start the car and move it farther down the road rather than walk a quarter-mile. It’s just that awful.
When locally owned businesses do things that hurt us, healing they don’t deserve a pass. When Terra Toys reacts to higher rent by leaving a good urban environment and moving somewhere where nobody will walk to, and very few will walk around in, why on earth am I supposed to support them against Wal-Mart or the Domain, when those guys are at least trying to make things a little better?
Also, for extra credit, remember City Comforts’ primary rule of urbanism: it starts with the location of the parking lot.

versus

Any questions?

Very quick hit today; not even any links, pilule although I may fill them in later if I get a minute.
My family took the #5 down to Town Lake yesterday for the First Night festivities (the parade was outstanding – best one I’ve ever seen). One simple thing we experienced shows why streetcars in shared lanes are completely useless.
We’re travelling southbound in the right lane of Congress (where shared-lane low-budget streetcar would inevitably operate as well). Oops, a car has stopped and is unloading a bunch of stuff with their flashers on. The bus driver quickly changes to the center lane to get around them and then moves back right.
A block later, somebody starts to pull out of one of the angle-parking spaces and stops. I was never able to figure out why – they may have been spooked by traffic. Again, the bus driver changes lanes and moves around the obstruction.
Anybody see the problem with shared-lane streetcar yet?
You get enough little blockages like that and the performance and reliability of the streetcar gets so bad that even the mystical streetcar fairy dust that supposedly makes commuters forget how to read their watch won’t help.
True light rail, with reserved guideway (“running in its own lane”) is a slam-dunk win for Austin. But shared-lane streetcar is a complete waste of time that actually performs worse for passengers than does the city bus that most of them won’t even take today.
Unfortunately, I have my suspicions that the Wynn/McCracken rail plan will end up having to rely on mixed-traffic streetcar service for a good chunk of its proposed route (and that’s only one of the two impending problems; the other being that the route absolutely must go up Congress and then Guadalupe, rather than over the east side of UT and then out to Mueller as in the useless Capital Metro proposal). So, once again, we’re scrod by our pal Mike Krusee – because of his push in 2000 to destroy Capital Metro, and then his push in 2004 to force commuter rail instead of light rail, urban Austin will probably end up with no rail at all, or, at best, rail which is actually less useful than city buses.

Yesterday, generic I posted a quick hit about our bus ride down to First Night which noted several times where a bus was actually more useful than a streetcar would have been. It’s actually fairer to say “less awful”, tablets of course, since anybody who knows me knows I don’t find bus transit remotely acceptable on a corridor like this either – it needs true light rail like Austin voters approved in 2000.
Now, I see that things aren’t going so great in Seattle with their stuck-in-traffic streetcar either:

On Sunday, the southbound streetcar was out of service at Westlake Avenue and Lenora Street because a car was parked in the way.
“In spite of the fact we have clearly marked areas, and despite signs we have, for some reason a driver parked their car so it caused a problem for the streetcar,” Sheridan said.
He did not know how long the streetcar was out of service, but one witness said he saw the streetcar still stopped at 8:30 p.m.

Quick recommendation: My readers who are tempted to fall for the monorail siren song, neuropathologist as well as those who have been misled by neanderthal clap-trap about “choo-choo” trains being too old a technology should check out this excellent piece by Christof in Houston.
As I’ve commented in his forums, resuscitator though, also be aware that these solutions are often pushed disingenuously by people who really want nothing to get done, because they don’t want the status quo to be threatened. In other words, whenever you read about monorail and especially PRT, be aware that a lot of the guys pushing this are doing so not because they actually want or expect it to ever get built, but precisely because they know it WON’T ever get built so they can protect transit funds which can later be diverted for suburban highways instead.

This has come up frequently in the past in regards to the idiocy of claiming that major retail belongs out on the frontage road (where I have claimed in the past that it’s impossible to practically provide good transit service). Here’s a much better version than my previous one, clinic and as a bonus, melanoma MS Paint was still tangentially involved!

(For non-Texas readers who may have wandered in from Jeff’s excellent transit portal, stomach almost all limited-access highways in this state are built from pre-existing major arterial roadways – where property access is maintained via the construction of new “frontage roads” which unlike perimeter roads often used for that purpose in other states, also serve as on-and-off-ramps. The incredibly wide road footprint that results makes it far more expensive to build new or maintain existing crossings over or under the highway).

Both images from google transit; click through for full details. This is basically the “how do I get from the drop-off for the express bus at the park-and-ride on the west side of the road to the entrance to all the office parks on the east side of the road”. Note that the address for the park-and-ride you sometimes get (12400 Research) doesn’t match the actual location, which is on Pavilion Boulevard back towards Jollyville.

First, the transit directions, which look pretty good at first:


Then, the driving directions, which look like this:


Huh. Wait a minute. If I can just jump across the road, why do the driving directions have me go down a mile and back? Let’s look at the satellite image (click to embiggen):


(Get more current satellite view here)

Oh. Now I see. Note that the bus stop images you see on the other side of the road are for a poorly performing cross-town route which suffers from the same basic problem – if you need to leave an office on that side of the street and go southbound on 183 back home, you get to walk to the next crossing – which on a normal street wouldn’t be that big of a deal, but crossings of frontage roads are few and far between. Farther to the northwest, crossings are even less frequent – you face a walk of close to 3 miles in spots to make this trip across the freeway. Taking that cross-town route would be even worse than taking the express plus the incredibly long walk, because it would require a long slow trip down the frontage road and then a transfer to a second bus, and because the service on the frontage road is inevitably low-demand, it doesn’t run very often either.

Keep in mind that this is just to cross the freeway. If you work at the Riata office park, you then face another walk of a half-mile or so inside the complex. I used to do this commute on my bike, with bus boost in the morning at times and am very familiar with the area – ironically, proximity to the Pavilion transit center was supposedly touted as a positive for this development when it was originally proposed. I was always pretty sure Pavilion used to connect with what is now called Riata Trace Parkway when 183 was just a six-lane divided arterial but have never been able to find a clear enough old satellite image to confirm, but our Tennessee correspondent has already confirmed in comments that it did cross.

For reference, my last job before this one was also on US 183, but between Balcones Woods and Braker Lane, which was much more accessible by transit – and yes, I did sometimes take the bus even on days where I wasn’t biking. I tried the bus commute once to Riata and never did it again – that walk, in addition to being far too long even for a nice comfortable express bus, is just dreadful, even compared to conditions down by Braker.

And, yes, there’s a personal reason this is coming up now too. All I can say now is dammit, dammit.
Coverage by the Chronicle and Austinist, viagra approved but I’ll focus on two very narrow areas here where they are dead wrong. Note: I don’t have the time to spend all day Saturday at the Convention Center to tell these guys stuff they already know deep-down, symptoms thanks.
The long PDF is here. Here’s the two things I’m going to address (I agree with most, but not all, of the remainder of the thing, but nothing else is as remarkably wrong as these):
#1: Two-way streets are NOT better for pedestrians and cyclists. The only thing you have to do to throw out this ridiculous piece of conventional wisdom that we need to convert all our one-ways to two-ways is imagine being a driver who is sitting waiting to make a left turn from a 2-way 4-lane undivided roadway downtown into a driveway or cross street. Hey, there’s a little break in traffic!, you think, GUN IT!. How’s that going to work out for the pedestrian crossing on the flashing Walk signal? You know, the one you couldn’t see until a split second before you hit him, because your view was obstructed by the oncoming traffic before the gap?
With one-way streets, you always get one cycle where pedestrians have a fully protected (solid-white walk signal) crossing (bar left-turn-on-red; which requires enough motorist vigilance to be very safe for pedestrians anyways). Crossing one-way streets as a pedestrian is comparatively much safer and much saner and much more pleasant than crossing a similarly sized two-way street.
The primary reason this 2-way nonsense keeps coming up is because people compare a narrow 2-lane 2-way street like 2nd street to a wide 1-way street with 4 or 5 lanes; and, of course, because they’re completely car-centric to boot. The greatest pedestrian cities in the world have tons of one-way streets. Throw out this piece of ‘wisdom’ that 2-way is better; it’s just not true.
(I plan on eventually writing a backgrounder on this one – suffice to say for now that you need to know that the primary motivating force behind this stuff are urban-but-suburban-minded business owners who want you to see their shop no matter which direction you’re driving; not people who honestly want to build a downtown people like to walk around in).
#2: The streetcar line proposed by Capital Metro will provide more people-moving capacity downtown – ABSOLUTELY FALSE. Compare/contrast with light rail, which certainly would have; and McCracken/Wynn’s rail proposal, which COULD, but if and only if they get significant chunks of reserved guideway and don’t follow Cap Metro’s stupid up-the-rear-end-of-UT-and-out-Manor-Road route. The existing AND FUTURE density in central Austin is on Guadalupe, not on San Jacinto and Manor Road (neighborhood plans out there don’t allow for enough future density to make running them a streetcar remotely worth the cost; and Guadalupe already has significant enough density to justify it).
If the streetcar runs in shared traffic, as it will according to Capital Metro’s proposal, it will not be able to attract many more people than do the buses that currently run around downtown. This is important, because building new transit that doesn’t actually get USED more doesn’t actually help with the person-moving capacity of the corridor.
In addition, the streetcar line as proposed by Capital Metro will not be a significantly better way to distribute commuter rail passengers than will the buses that will do it on day one. Read my recent comments about streetcar versus bus for starters – Capital Metro’s proposal runs entirely in ‘shared lanes’, meaning that the streetcars will be even slower and even less reliable than the buses these commuters won’t set foot on today. So it’s not going to be the ‘dessert’ which makes more people want to eat the ‘meal’. Once again, no improvement in people-moving capacity.
These use cases basically show you what a passenger on the commuter rail line will face. Imagine that the last segment is on a streetcar, stuck in traffic behind their coworkers’ cars, instead of on a bus. Does it make much difference?
I have a strong suspicion that the people working on the downtown plan know all of this, by the way, but there is a political risk to being too much against Capital Metro’s transit plan and the 2-way-street conventional wisdom. Nonetheless, it would have been very helpful for some caveats to be included at a bare minimum, like they did with the commuter rail line itself (their quote below).

In its first phase, the Leander-to-
Austin Commuter Rail Line will terminate in the extreme east/southeast quadrant of Downtown,
at Brush Square. This peripheral location is not ideal, being about a 30-minute walk to the
Capitol Complex, 10 minutes to Sixth and Congress (2.5 MPH) and 15 minutes to City Hall (2.5
MPH). While transfers to waiting buses are planned from the MLK Rail Station to UT and to the
Capitol, as well as from Brush Square to Downtown destinations, it is unclear how desirable these
bus transfers will be to the transit user.

Note the skillful caveats here. This particular page is well-done – it addresses the problem, while still being optimistic enough to satisfy people who think we can actually get more things done through consensus rather than forceful advocacy of our needs.
The rule of thumb for transit users is roughly a 5-minute walk, by the way, in case you were still wondering why I keep talking about what a disaster this thing is going to be. Light rail would have run to within a 5-minute walk of essentially all the major employment destinations in central Austin.

From “Dataholic” on this story. I still owe you guys at least one more installment of “What RG4N cost the city” which will be focused on lost opportunities to do the site better, cure but in the meantime, patient please read this:

Two judges have ruled that the City followed its own laws when it came to approving the Lincoln site plan. When there are laws, all sides have to abide by them, including Lincoln, including the City, including the neighborhoods. If the City capitulated to RG4N’s demands, it would be breaking its own laws, thus opening itself to being sued by Lincoln (and losing since the laws were followed –per 2 judges). This would be even costlier for the City (all of us), and would achieve nothing (in terms of getting rid of Wal-Mart). Even RG4N founders stated, very early on, that no public process was required to build a supercenter on that site.
Regardless of what you think of Wal-Mart, regardless of how much more preferable a different (or no) development might be, Lincoln owns the property and Lincoln followed the law.
If the laws need changing, then change them — but RG4N demanding the City break its own laws is divisive, expensive, and only a ploy to further the political careers of its leaders at the expense of the neighborhoods.

I couldn’t put that any better myself. And, no, I don’t post under anybody other than “m1ek”. RG4N needs to man up and admit they lost this, big-time, and the Chronicle needs to stop carrying their water just because they happen to be highly connected. Enough is enough. You’re making a mockery of yourselves and you’re hurting the city.

  • M1Ke,
    I couldn’t agree with you more. I’m not a big fan of Wal-Mart because they don’t give health insurance to their employee’s ever though they aer a multi-billion dollar company. But damn it, they followed the law here. I never really understood the ‘austin’s grass root’ outrage over this. It’s truly weird.
    I like your blog. Good writing. I’m adding it as a link on mine.. .
    http://fluffer-union.blogspot.com/
    T. Korioth